The first season or two of Mad Men made drinking all day, womanizing all night, and chain smoking seem really glamorous. But Don Draper doesn't wear his unhealthy lifestyle as handsomely in 1968 as he did in 1960. Now pasty, puffy, and sweaty, his bloodshot eyes are the windows to someone who is dead inside. It did seem like this season was particularly morbid, leading many to believe that it might end in a violent death—but it ended in a symbolic one. Don Draper is dead. Dick Whitman lives.
The idea of identity has always been at the heart of Mad Men and its antihero Don. Did you know he's a Gemini? It's perfectly fitting for someone who operates in his own world of duality. (BTW, Gemini is ruled by Mercury, whose action is to take things apart and put them back together.) There's been a lot of twin symbolism this season to reflect that, from the colored pencil promo sketches, to Megan's role on To Have and to Hold, to Don watching The Patty Duke Show (identical cousins!). Lately, he's been grappling with his true identity. Who is he, really? Don Draper or Dick Whitman?
It's become very clear that Don is an addict. He's addicted to sex, which stems from a traumatic childhood that taught him that sex (and not Hersheys) is the currency of affection. And because of that, he drinks. He drinks to forget to feel all his shitty feelings, to numb his guilt. On last night's episode, his phone call with Sally—in which she reminds him that she walked in on him having sex with the neighbor lady, much like he'd witnessed his pregnant step-mother having sex at the whore house (which really fucked him up, irrevocably)—and was crushed with the guilt of what his actions had done to his daughter, how he didn't care enough to stop the cycle, how she might end up just like him. It sent him on a tailspin of a bender, where he ditched an important meeting at work and subsequently spent the night in jail.
In the morning, looking as though he'd been through Hell—another theme for this season, which opened with Don reading Dante's Inferno—he poured all of his liquor down the drain, intending to quit cold turkey. Megan walks in and he tells her, "I realized it's gotten out of control. I've gotten out of control."
And it looked like he'd tackled the first of the Twelve Steps, by admitting he was powerless when it comes to alcohol and that his life had become unmanageable. Instead of getting himself some help, he believes that he can get his marriage and his life back on track if he could just move to California. All his problems—his kids, his career, his ex-wife—are in New York. Wouldn't it just be easier to leave?
In AA they call this a "Geographical Cure," whereby people believe that they can cure their alcoholism by having a "fresh start" somewhere else. But the thing is, wherever you go, there you are. Don can't escape his problems by moving anymore than Dick could escape his by becoming Don. The only way that Don could ever get better is to get real.
His moment of clarity—about the true repercussions of his actions—seemed to come in the middle of the night during his phone call with Betty about Sally getting suspended from Miss Porter's for drinking. Betty is beside herself and in a moment of affection, even calling her his pet name for her, "Birdie," he tells her it's not her fault.
Betty answers, "She comes from a broken home." Meaning: it's our fault. And that's when it all finally seemed to click for Don. He exposed his daughter to inappropriate behavior that she couldn't possibly understand, and like her father, she turned to booze to deal.
Unfortunately, he finally embraced the "rigorous honesty" (described in the Big Book as "the complete lack of intent to deceive one's self or anyone else") necessary for his recovery during a crucial pitch meeting with Hershey and during a fit of DTs. He shared a true anecdote from his past that involved a whorehouse, pickpocketing, and Hersey's bars, which wasn't exactly what the execs from the chocolate company thought of as a "sweet tale from childhood." Needless to say, it lost the agency the account.
Getting the weight off his chest of the lies he'd been hiding caused an immediate transformation. He told Ted to take the job in California that he'd wanted. He told Roger that he "didn't care" that he'd "shit the bed" in the meeting. He said to Dawn, "Happy Thanksgiving, sweetheart."
Suddenly he was warmer and had his priorities in check. Oddly, his rock bottom came after his moment of clarity. Within 24 hours, Megan left him and the agency fired him (in what looked like an intervention of sorts).
This whole season repeatedly asked the question about whether people—particularly Don—are truly capable of change. But at the same time, that question was answered with Roger. We saw his incredible metamorphosis from a selfish, petulant man-child to a self-aware, go-getting family man. He went to therapy. He worked on improving himself. He began to use the power of his charms for good instead of naughtiness. And ultimately, he saw the Veruca Salt-like daughter his poor parenting had produced, and realized that he had a second chance at this fatherhood thing with Kevin, his son with Joan. In a whole episode revolving around Thanksgiving week, Roger was the only one who seemed at all grateful for what he had in his life.
But it's difficult to tell with Don whether he'll just be a dry drunk or if he will truly change the way that Roger has. It seems like he's off to a good start, but so much of AA involves a lot of God-this and higher power-that. The process of the Twelve Steps is supposed to be a spiritual awakening. And seeing as how he had that flashback about the evangelist in the whorehouse and then when he punched that minister, it seems like Don might have a problem with all the religious elements of AA. Or maybe not. Maybe that's going to be party of his journey. As that evangelist said to him:
"The only unpardonable sin is to believe that God cannot forgive you."
But God is probably more forgiving than 14-year-old girls. Instead of shirking his responsibilities to get loaded in this difficult time in his life, he decided to work on repairing the relationships in his life that matter the most, and took his kids to see his childhood home. He was letting them into his life, letting them get to know him. And at least for a brief moment, Sally saw things a little differently, and finally understood, quite literally, where her father was coming from.
It reminds me of the passage etched on the lighter that the soldier gave to him in the first episode this season:
"In life we often have to do things that are just not our bag."
For Don/Dick, that probably means being a sober, present, decent father—something with which he has no experience or example to follow.
Two seasons ago, the last episode closed with Don in bed with Megan, looking out the window with considerable worry on his face about what the future might hold. This time, the episode ended with Don with his children standing in front of the place where he was raised—the whorehouse of horrors of his childhood—on the outside, looking in, ready and willing to confront his past.